Thinking Images v.26: Ideology in America

February 8, 2012 · by David Campbell · politics, Thinking Images

Superbowl commercials are an American art form, inspiring blogs, analysis and audience interaction. Last Sunday, watching my first live Superbowl in some twenty years, one stood out – though for reasons somewhat different from the ensuing controversy.

“Half time in America” – these ads even have their own names – is an ad for Chrysler fronted by Clint Eastwood. Recalling the title of Reagan’s famous 1984 campaign commercial (“Morning again in America“), this Chrysler ad played off last year’s commercial featuring Eminem, recycling some clips and developing the theme of Detroit’s renaissance.

Moving from the dark shadows of a dimly lit road to the warm glow of sunlit scenes, Eastwood’s narration presents a story of adversity, struggle and redemption. Although it was presented in terms of the collective ‘we’, it relied on the ideology of individualism and hard work to identify how the people of “Motor City” forged a path for the rest of the country as it faces the future. “We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one,” Eastwood intones. (See here for a transcript).

The Chrysler ad certainly had the feel of a campaign commercial. But to me it was a commercial replete with the recurrent tropes of American exceptionalism that abound in any presidential campaign (and about which I have written a lot in my book Writing Security). It’s also an ad that plays on post-9/11 military metaphors. Accompanying the lines about rallying around to act as one after the tough trials, are still photos of families followed by two fireman, recalling the members of the FDNY who responded to the falling towers in Manhattan. It is then that Eastwood says: “This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines.” Perhaps that roar comes from new (but still inefficient) cars.  Or perhaps, more menacingly, it comes from the military machine that has been in action in Afghanistan and Iraq and is now being readied for action against Iran.

Read as an homage to the individualism and militarisation of American political culture, the Chrysler ad swept under the carpet the largest factor in Detroit’s recovery – what Washington Post writer E. J. Dionne calls the “socialist” or “state capitalist” bailouts of Chrysler and GM that are one of the Obama administration’s policy successes for the way they saved an industry and preserved employment. You don’t hear Eastwood speaking of the government’s bold, multi billon dollar intervention – begun, incidentally, by George W. Bush in 2008 – in the commercial. Nor do you see any images of unions at work. Instead politics appears only as the site of discord and division.

The right wing, it turns out, sees the world rather differently and loves discord and division. For the likes of Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh, this Chrysler ad “offended” them because it was pro-Obama propaganda that overtly lauded the role of big government, and was nothing less than corporate payback. The Daily Mail, no less, has a good overview of how this ruckus is playing out.

The rabid response to the Chrysler ad tells us a lot about American political culture and this year’s presidential race. For a non-American, the representation of the Obama administration as left-wing is laughable. For the right to read a commercial that reeks of American exceptionalism as an ideological tool for a socialist paymaster is a remarkable inversion that demonstrates how fervent is the now permanent culture war in the United States.

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